The value of shovelling snow and other first-job lessons

Rhys Britton, 12, plows through snow to clear a skating rink near the shoreline of the Avon River...

Rhys Britton, 12, plows through snow to clear a skating rink near the shoreline of the Avon River in Stratford, Ont., on Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. Scott Wishart/QMI Agency

Chris Taylor, Reuters

, Last Updated: 9:28 AM ET

NEW YORK - Since last August, Reuters has been asking the nation's top achievers about the first gigs that helped launch their careers. And if any common thread has emerged, it's that you never can tell where superstars are going to come from.

Some first jobs were impressively academic, like Hearsay Social's Clara Shih's position at a national particle accelerator lab. Some have been more real-world training grounds, like social media king Gary Vaynerchuk's experience selling baseball cards by renting tables at card shows.

To coincide with the December 2013 U.S. unemployment report, we talked to some technology standouts about their first jobs. Some were tech-oriented; some weren't. But all were essential proving grounds that set the table for impressive careers.

Name: Alexis Ohanian

Title: Co-founder, Reddit, a social media service; author, "Without Their Permission"

First job: Computer demonstrations

"I was stationed inside a CompUSA, and I was being paid to give demos about software and hardware that they had for sale. I had a headset, and a big monitor behind me, and every 30 minutes I would give the same demo to absolutely no one.

"After all, no one was going into a CompUSA to listen to a dorky 14-year-old talk about gadgets. So here I was at an awkward age, being exposed to the worst public-speaking experience possible - and it was happening every 30 minutes.

"As a result I got my 10,000 hours of practice in really early. I was able to exorcise those demons of fear at a young age, which helped me when I was co-founding Reddit right out of school, or even now when I'm on a book tour with 165 different speaking gigs. I still get anxious, with the dry mouth and the sweaty palms, but I have learned how to funnel those nerves into better places.

Name: Rachel Sklar

Title: Co-founder, The Li.st, a platform to promote women

First job: Snow shoveler

"This was in Toronto when I was 14, and I was very enterprising and spunky. I decided to shovel neighbors' driveways. I figured I'd just put my snow pants on and get the job done.

"I also decided to be very clever, and charge $15 per job instead of $15 per hour, because I figured it would take a lot less time than that. I thought I was golden.

"That first driveway was a monster. It was so hard, and so painful, and took forever. If you're Canadian and from a snow culture, you know the kind of snow I'm talking about: It was wet and dense and heavy, with a thick coating of ice on top that you had to break through. It took me all afternoon. The whole time I was shoveling, I knew I'd made a bad deal, but I couldn't go back.

"I never did it again. It just wasn't worth it. I so remember the anguish of my inner monologue that day. It was an early indicator that I wasn't made for hard manual labor - but I'm very glad I did it. And I do think back to it as a massively learning experience."

Name: Dave Girouard

Title: Co-founder and CEO, Upstart, a funding marketplace

First Job: Ice-cream shop

"I was a freshman in high school in Redding, Massachusetts, around 14 years old, and my first job was at a local place called the Dairy Maid. It was an ice-cream shop famous for making enormously large cones.

"I was the guy who would show up and clean and empty the machines, and swab the deck, and shut it all down. It was a pretty miserable job. There was no air conditioning, I made whatever the minimum wage was in 1980, and by the end of the night I was always sweating profusely. But at least I did get free ice cream; that was probably worth as much as they were paying me in salary.

"A lot of my friends were very jealous of me for having that job, though, and said they would do it for no pay at all. That was because I was the only boy alongside 15 young, very attractive girls - I think it was part of the store's marketing plan. I never got a girlfriend out of it, but it wasn't for lack of trying."

Name: Danae Ringelmann

Title: Co-founder, Indiegogo, a crowdfunding network

First Job: Cookie Saleswoman

"We lived near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, so during the summer when I was eight or nine years old, I would go there with my older sister and sell cookies. Chocolate chip, around 25 cents a cookie. We used to make $30 or $40 in a day.

"There are two things I remember about that time: First, the costs of doing business, because my father always made us pay him back for all the raw materials. It made me realize you had to have money to make money. You needed working capital to buy the ingredients and get started.

"Second, I remember being shut down by the cops. Our big differentiator was that we made our cookies at home. One day a cop came up to us and asked, 'Are these homemade?' We said proudly, 'Yes, they are!' And he stopped it all right away, because we didn't have a permit. I was so sad and bummed out.

"That was my big run-in with the law. But it made me appreciate the value of a dollar, working for money rather than just getting an allowance. And I learned the importance of ownership: Not just working for someone else, but being in charge and controlling your own destiny."

 


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